Our lives are guided by collective narratives. Think about how being a child, coming of age, getting married, having children, getting divorced, and growing old have been explored in the arts and social sciences deeply and in detail. We call on this collective wisdom to understand what life transitions “mean” and how they should be handled. Without this framework, we would be lost.
Immigration is a huge transition, but there exists little narrative to guide one through it. Society as a whole looks at it from the “outside” rather than from the “inside”. How many books or movies about being an immigrant do you know that do not turn the subject into a farce? And if there is academic research on the psychology and sociology of immigration, the conversation has yet to filter into popular culture. This lack of conceptual framework makes the immigration journey an Orwellian experience of little definition.
And as if immigration related culture shock was not stressful enough, it is often compounded by a downward shift in social position. Consider for a moment the idea of going through high school or undergraduate years again in your own culture. When a refugee doctor from the Middle East becomes a hospital aid in the United States, for example, this literally strips one’s previous identity bare. It is a huge, rich, and terrifying subject to explore, and it is still waiting to be investigated in depth.
In trying to understand my experience of immigration, I am drawn to the narratives of people who undergo equally dramatic identity shifts. I am interested in what recent veterans write about struggling to integrate back into a society that knows nothing about the experience of war. These writers as well as members of the transgendered community are developing the tools to talk about radical identity change, also characteristic of immigration.
Meanwhile, our society continues to deal with immigrant experiences through comedy skits. In that genre, here's a story about my early experience.
Immediately upon entering the University of Calgary, I had to embark on a 20 page long art history paper. I was advised that the university had printing services and reassured that as long as I had good ideas, people in the department would help me.
I took my manuscript to the printing services and communicated my concerns about spelling, particularly of the artists' names. "Don’t worry", they said, "we will run your paper through spell check and you'll be all set!"
With unwavering faith in the magical powers of spell check, I delivered the printed version to my art history professor without proofreading. Needless to say, “illuminating” became “eliminating”... and so on. And I am not even talking about the artists’ names… By the way, what is the proper pronunciation of “Ingres”? Is there the American pronunciation? Or should one use the French one? And how do you pronounce it and not frighten people if you have a Russian accent?
As to whether the experience helped me as an artist, I haven’t really addressed it in my work. It is possible I would do so in the future.
- What were some of the differences in the system of training artists in North America as compared to Russia?
My Russian training was less conceptual and more technical. However, I do not think this was for lack of intellectual rigor. Though the faculty never heard of Howard Gardner, it understood that a visual sign is a vastly different than, say, a verbal sign. Fine art education was seen as a means of developing visual rather than verbal literacy. If a student had to explain what he meant to say in his or her work and it was not immediately evident from sketches on paper, the professor would comment: “You need to attach a page of writing to your work.” This was not a compliment.
Such approach narrowed down the possibilities for fine art, as opposed to the American view and approach to training. But it also equipped graduates with sharply-honed visual literacy and superb technical skills.
- How do your Russian roots influence your work today? Is there any influence apparent in this series?
I’d be very interested getting feedback from viewers on this. If they did not know this work was that of an “American, born Russian” artist, would they be able to tell?
Russian art always put an emphasis on emotional power, and I have held on to that. Contemporary art largely excludes emotionality, especially avoiding some certain emotions. See what I mean about being unapologetically feminist?
In addition, contemporary art is less interested in capturing visual reality and more focused on creating new artistic reality. I, too, am moving in that direction. While in the Minimal Landscapes I am using descriptive language, my other work is moving away from it.
- Lastly, in your artist’s statement, you highlight the changes in the scenic region as you’ve observed over the years. Changes sparked by the environmental devastations that, consequently, wiped out your once sense of security and reassurance; however, none of the landscapes depict this new barren land. It seems as though you chose to preserve the beauty that still lives. Did you consider painting any of the barren hemlocks or devastated land? If so, why did you choose to leave that out?
Great observation! The images do not capture any scenes of degradation. Instead, I chose to preserve the beauty that still lives. Focusing on what was lost would have involved a whole other emotional sphere that I did not want to explore with this work. I spend a lot of time on each image in this series, and I wanted to spend time with what was still there.
Nature is resilient. Oak forests killed by gypsy moths and hemlock groves destroyed by woolly adelgids will be replaced with maple ones. Nature will go on with or without us.